By Miguel Bustillo
Los Angeles Times Article Launched: 04/05/2008 01:33:03 AM PDT
HOUSTON - State troopers sealed off a polygamist compound in a remote stretch of Texas on Friday, and child welfare officials removed 52 girls after a complaint that a 16-year-old had been physically and sexually abused, authorities said.
The investigation at the YFZ Ranch - a walled-off complex just outside the town of Eldorado that is anchored by a towering white temple - came as welcome news to local officials, who had complained for years about the religious sect hunkered there.
"We know they're violating the law, but someone has to raise their hand and testify, and until that happens we don't have anything," said James C. Doyle, a local justice of the peace who has flown frequently over the compound in his private plane. "Those young girls are so brainwashed, it's hard to know what they'll say."
Texas Department of Public Safety officials disclosed shortly after noon that they were going to execute search and arrest warrants on some of the compound's inhabitants, but did not explain why. As of Friday evening, no one had been arrested, a spokesman said.
A Child Protective Services spokesman confirmed that officials had removed 52 girls by bus - ranging from 6 months to 17 years of age. Of those, 18 were taken into state custody due to concerns about abuse and neglect, while the others were being interviewed by caseworkers to determine whether they too should be taken from their parents.
"Generally speaking, a removal occurs when there is no other way to protect a child from abuse or neglect," spokesman Patrick Crimmins said. "It could be that abuse has happened, or that we felt there was a really good chance that it would."
The YFZ - Yearning for Zion - Ranch was built by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after the church purchased an exotic game preserve in 2004. The self-styled prophet of the controversial Mormon offshoot, Warren Jeffs, was convicted in Utah last year of being an accomplice to rape for forcing a 14-year-old to marry and have sex with her 19-year-old cousin 2001. Jeffs, 52, also has been charged with being an accomplice to incest and sexual conduct with a minor in Arizona, and is imprisoned there, awaiting trial.
Marrying more than one person is illegal in Texas. Although polygamist followers do not obtain marriage licenses for their multiple nuptials, citizens of Eldorado - a town of about 1,800 about 2 1/2 hours from San Antonio - have called for Texas to investigate allegations that girls there were being pledged to men against their will.
Texas officials have been deeply concerned about the YFZ Ranch, and have been working to ensure that any confrontation with sect members does not end in the type of chaos that marked the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. That incident left 82 sect members - including its charismatic leader, David Koresh - dead.
On Friday, the Department of Public Safety said that the YFZ Ranch probe was launched because Child Protective Services had received a complaint about improper activity at the compound. Crimmins said the agency wanted to react quickly to the complaint - which claimed that a 16-year-old girl had been abused - but had to move deliberately, with backing from state and local law enforcement.
Troopers sealed off all entrances to the compound Thursday evening, and child welfare agents began interviewing some of Jeffs' estimated 400 followers, including children, officials said. As the probe continued Friday, officials said they were restricting news organizations from flying over the self-sufficient compound - where armed guards were previously spotted in surveillance towers.
"At this point, we are helping (child welfare agents) interview people within the compound," Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger said in a statement. "The people at YFZ Ranch have been very cooperative. They are providing all the people we need to talk to."
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